Voicing "great disappointment" and suggesting that the nation's bankers had turned on him, the chairman of the House Banking Committee tabled indefinitely yesterday legislation intended to solve the Federal Reserve system's problem of declining membership.
With congressional leaders and the banking community sharply at odds over basic principles -- specifically, whether to keep membership in the Fed voluntary and offer financial incentive to encourage others to join, or to make membership mandatory -- Rep. Henry Reuss (D-Wis.) announced there would be no further action until "there is a consensus on the matter."
The decision to abandon the reform effort for the time being came after a morning of testimony from spokesmen for two leading banking groups -- the American Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association -- both of whom said their groups could not endorse any existing legislative proposals, including Reuss'.
ABA President John Perkins, reiterating his association's policy position decided on last week, ugred continuation of the Fed's voluntary membership policy but asked for lower reserve levels and payment of interest on reserves in order to lessen the burden of Fed membership.
Raymond Campbell, first vice president of the IBAA, said independent bankers couldn't support any of the pending bills because they had yet to hold their annual convention. But he objected to extending reserve requirements to savings and loan associations and credit unions -- a key feature of the Reuss proposal and one the ABA also opposes.
"We believe any such incorporation of these institutions in the system is unwarranted and unwise," said Campbell, adding that it would only "confuse and complicate matters."
Obviously distressed by the erosion of support for a bill which he thought the banking community had indicated to him that it could support, Reuss attacked the alternative the bankers were offering. He said the ABA's proposal would "continue reserve-dodging by 232 big banks and leave it to the good guys" to maintain the Fed's dwindling reserves.
He said, too, that the bankers' call for lower reserve levels could cost the government up to $2 billion in interest the Fed now earns on the reserves it holds for member banks. "Such a loss would clearly negate the Fed's ability to fight inflation and would add billions to the deficit," Reuss stated.
Defending the ABA plan, Perkins said Reuss' example was an extreme case, based on the bottom figure in a range of lower reserve levels proposed by the ABA. He also answered charged of windfall profits for banks in the event the Fed started paying interest on reserves, claiming that the additional revenue would be offset largely by an increase in the cost for Fed services now provided free to member banks.
But at the close of the hearings, it appeared that, after seven months, attempts by Reuss' staff and the bankers to reach a workable plan had reached an impasse. "There's lack of consensus on how to proceed," said a Reuss aide. "We thought they would accept a mandatory (reserve) policy, but now they have gelled against one."
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), chairman of the Banking Committee, has introduced a bill similar to the Reuss bill calling for a mandatory, uniform Fed reserve requirement for banks and, to a limited extent, for thrift institutions. Proxmire still is conducting hearings on the matter.
In announcing his decision to table action on House legislation, Reuss released a statement which said in part:
"My decision is prompted largely by the complete opposition of the American Bankers Association and other banking groups, and the ABA's alternative proposal that billions of dollars be transferred from the Treasury to the banks and that the Fed be left without adequate powers to fight inflation.
"It is clear that what I had hoped would be an amicable, agreed legislative process will instead become a pitched battle which could have very severe domestic and international complications."
At the same time, Reuss said he would direct the Fed and other regulatory agencies to begin to collect financial data from all depository institutions, rather than just from member institutions which until now had been the main source of information. This is one move all parties in the debate had agreed was necessary and desirable.
In related news yesterday:
Robert Carswell, deputy secretary of the Treasury, told Congress the Carter administration opposes immediate consolidation of the nation's three bank-regulating agencies and instead favors a more gradual approach. Carswell was testifying on a bill that would replace the Federal Reserve system, the comptroller of the currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. with a single five-member commission.
The U.S. League of Savings Association asked Congress to exempt the nation's 4,400 savings and loan associations from Federal Trade Commission regulations, citing overlapping and duplicatory jurisdiction by the FTC and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.